The Confused Environmentalist

Pedal to the Metal
by Jennifer Weiss -- July 28th, 2012

I have just found my new favorite renewable energy source. Nope, it’s not solar. No, not wind. No, it’s not even energy from ocean currents (although that’s pretty cool too). It’s electricity generated from stationary bikes. Specifically, stationary bikes pedaled by prisoners. Yes, I just said from prisoners.

A recent NPR broadcast tells the story of a small city near Brazil where prisoners pedal four stationary bikes  that have been rigged to generate electricity. Prisoners volunteer to spend all day in the prison courtyard and take turns pedaling stationary bikes that were donated by a local police department. In return for their efforts, they receive one day off their sentence for every three 8-hour days of pedaling. Plus, they get a pretty good workout.

So how much electricity can be generated by four prisoners pedaling for 8 hour a day? According to the NPR story, the 4 bikes generate enough electricity to power 10 lamp posts. I’m not sure what types of lamps these are, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter. The  point is … they are generating electricity. And, with the exception of needing a bit more food to fuel their bodies, the prisoners are not emitting any green house gases to produces the electricity they are generating.  Brilliant.

Which makes me think … what if we took advantage of this great new renewable energy source right here in the United States? According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there were over 735,000 inmates in local jails in 2011. If each of these inmates pedaled for 8 hours a day, they would produce electricity to power 1,837,500 Brazilian lamp posts. WOW!!

Now, I won’t get into whether these stationary bikes are an efficient means of generating electricity (they aren’t) or whether this is even a feasible idea (it really isn’t), but it is fun to think about. If each prison were given 10 stationary bikes to use to generate their own electricity, it  would at least offset some of the electricity being used to house them during their prison term. And, let’s face it, it’s not like they have a lot of other things to do while they are waiting out their time.

Hmmmm … Prisoner Power. It has a nice ring to it.


  1. Robert McGuinn
    Jul 29, 2012

    Not funny or even a good idea. Sorry. You ever tried pedaling a bike for 8 hours? You certainly would not get up a do it again the next day. I don’t really think basic human rights should be violated in the name of sustainability or to “save the planet”. The slightly smirking cruelty of all this just sounds a little too much like the beginnings of green fascism. I’m not really into saving the planet if you have to kill the human will and spirit to do it.

    • Jen Weiss
      Jul 30, 2012

      Dear Mr. McGuinn,
      Thank you for your comment and I appreciate your opinion. It was certainly not my intention to imply that the prisoners should be overworked and I wholeheartedly agree that we should never break the human spirit under the guise of saving the planet. It is my understanding from the NPR story (and others like it) that the prisoners volunteered to pedal the stationary bikes and received “payment” for their work in the form of days off of their prison term. I believe that they were never required to work for 8 hours straight and no one was ever forced to pedal – it was always voluntary. Since many prisoners spend a great part of their day in the prison’s work out room, transferring some of that energy towards a sustainable goal is an interesting idea. My previous blog posts have demonstrated that living a sustainable life can be quite confusing and this post is no different. Thank you for showing us the other side of this issue. I appreciate your post. Jen

  2. Marian Keegan
    Jul 31, 2012

    I advocate that fitness centers use these bikes. Can you imagine the competitive spirit of cyclers at the gym peaking when they generate enough juice to make the electric meters run backwards?

    • Jen Weiss
      Aug 1, 2012

      I love the idea Marian! Maybe the fitness centers could offer a reduction in our monthly fees if we gave them Pedal Power. Hmmm … Jen

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